An Ocean of Plastic Surrounds Various Continents
Our hydrosphere, already besieged with major issues such as climate change and overfishing, is home to tons of garbage and plastic that could further endanger various ecosystems around the world. According to an alarming study published in April by Science Advances magazine, Spanish researchers discovered a massive accumulation of plastic pollution in the Arctic Ocean, potentially as large as the growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch first reported in the 1980s.
Over the last few years, research in the Arctic Ocean has been facilitated by climate change. Warmer temperatures and melting ice structures make navigation and human activity more accessible, but the discovery of this new plastic and garbage vortex in this formerly pristine part of the world has been very disheartening. Similar to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is estimated to extend over thousands of kilometers, the bulk of the Arctic Ocean plastic vortex consists of particles that measure less than five millimeters, which means that they have disintegrated from larger pieces and have entered the food chain.
What is even more disconcerting about this discovery is that it only represents three percent of the problem at a global scale. There is not enough human activity on the shores of the Arctic Ocean to generate so much plastic waste; this particular convergence is caused by consumption and disposal patterns in North America and Europe.
An Underestimated Problem
News reports of the aforementioned Arctic Ocean research come at a time when similarly worrisome research about the state of pelagic plastic around the world are being released. Marine scientists in Australia believe that the estimates of millions of tons of plastic in the ocean could be underestimated by as much as 80 percent. Not all plastic particles float to the surface; an unknown amount of plastic items sink to the ocean floor or otherwise degrades into thin polystyrene film that floats beneath the surface.
In some tiny archipelagos of the Indian Ocean, waste management crews are having a hard time cleaning up the beach due to the massive invasion of plastic debris. The Cocos Keeling Islands are home to only a few hundred people, but they must shoulder the task of picking up tons of plastic from their shores each year. Similar situations are regularly experienced on the remote beaches of the Borneo and Malay archipelagos. In 2014, an Australian government study estimated that the visible plastic on the beaches of the Commonwealth could be estimated at 124 million pieces; however, scientist from the Sky Ocean Rescue organization believe that there could be more than 600 billion pieces.
The negative consequences of all this plastic in the ocean starts with degradation, which results in the leakage of toxic substances such as polychlorinated biphenyl and bisphenol. For marine species, this could mean a lifetime of eating toxic plastic pieces that are too small for them to detect. In turn, this means early sickness and perhaps genetic mutations; the overall disruption of the food chain can also have a detrimental effect on coastal ecosystems.
Another dangerous effect of the ongoing plastic pollution of the hydrosphere is harmful bacteria and other organisms can attach to plastic and float to shores where they can infect susceptible species.